Rare display of mainland media defiance of censorship
This week's acts of defiance against censors are seen as defining moments for press freedom, but few expect significant change any time soon
For those who pinned high hopes on a new generation of Communist Party leaders, the winter of suffocating media control has come too soon.
Amid a nationwide outcry over censorship at the outspoken Southern Weekly, the honeymoon period for the new leadership under party boss Xi Jinping has ended abruptly after less than two months.
Although the controversy was tempered after new Guangdong party boss Hu Chunhua stepped in to avert a full-blown crisis, it has raised doubts about whether the new leadership is ready to deliver on its commitment to change.
Analysts say the show of defiance by usually tame mainland journalists highlights a worsening picture for press freedom and a dilemma as Xi and his colleagues struggle to balance change and stability.
"The row at the Southern Weekly has evolved into an unexpected, crucial test of the new leadership," said political analyst Chen Ziming .
Rising star Hu was widely praised for his shrewd handling of the row, averting an all-out confrontation as staff threatened to strike.
Details of the deal between the Guangzhou-based newspaper and the authorities remain sketchy, as does the fate of the man at the centre of the row, Guangdong propaganda chief Tuo Zhen .
It also remains unclear if the full inquiry demanded by journalists will proceed.
Tuo, a former vice-president of the official Xinhua news agency, is alleged to have played a key role in a last-minute decision to change the newspaper's front-page New Year editorial calling for political reform into a tribute to one-party rule.
But it is apparent officials want to shift the blame elsewhere. In a Singaporean newspaper, provincial propaganda authorities denied accusations that Tuo or other propaganda officials had anything to do with the changed editorial.
Tuo made his first public appearance since the row at a propaganda meeting on Thursday.
Southern Weekly is known for hard-hitting investigative stories and repeated attempts to test official boundaries. But such editorial zeal has come at a steep price for the paper, making it a constant target of clampdowns.
In 2009, editor-in-chief Xiang Xi was rumoured to have been demoted after an exclusive interview with US President Barack Obama during his first tour of China, which ruffled feathers in Beijing.
Xiang, who later quit the Southern Weekly, joined a long list of veteran journalists at the newspaper who fell victim to censorship, including former editors Qian Gang , Jiang Yiping and Chang Ping . But matters have gone from bad to worse since Tuo moved to Guangdong in May, according to an open letter from editors and journalists last Saturday that claimed that "a total of 1,034 stories were censored or even scrapped … in 2012".
The letter, like another published online on the same day that the controversial editorial was published, was issued in the name of the newspaper's editorial department.
"That's the most solemn way of lodging our complaints," said a senior editor who did not want to be named for fear of reprisals.
Both letters denounced heightened censorship during Tuo's tenure and called for an independent inquiry. "The incident was like a detonating fuse. What we have been through was the endless routine of unjustifiable censorship, the killing of stories or entire pages and complete rewrites," the letter said.
The row escalated on Sunday when the paper's management issued a brief statement through its weibo microblog contradicting the allegations of its staff and placing the blame for the change on an unnamed senior worker.
That drew a torrent of criticism from journalists, prompting more detailed revelations about the row. Editorial staff accused Tuo, his deputy, and chief editor Huang Can of flip-flopping on the thorough investigation into censorship they had initially agreed to.
They said that not only had propaganda officials ordered the inclusion of an introductory message in the paper's New Year package without the consent of the page editor, after he had signed off on the page and left work, but also cut by almost half a commentary calling for proper implementation of the national constitution.
"We believe that what we are doing can help the new leadership foster public consensus and carry out their pro-reform policy agenda. We hope the new leadership can honour its commitment on promoting the rule of law and constitutional government and go with the tide of history. What have we done wrong?" the senior editor said.
More than a dozen journalists signed a petition posted late on Sunday to say they would not return to work until the controversy was resolved. But it seems most staff did not back a walkout.
A subsequent petition signed by dozens of editorial workers strongly challenged the management's statement, but did not spell out their next move.
While most mainland newspapers stayed silent on the row - on orders from Beijing - it was closely followed on microblogs, triggering overwhelming public support for the newspaper through a series of petitions.
In a rare exposé, a retired censor at the paper, Zeng Li , confirmed on his blog that the weekly had been stripped of most of its autonomy since Tuo moved to Guangdong.
In addition to stories being censored during the editorial process, all story ideas had to be submitted for scrutiny by Tuo's office, he wrote.
On several occasions, such as when deadly rainstorms hit Beijing in July, tens of thousands of copies were destroyed as censors moved to avoid critical coverage, Zeng said.
The row intensified on Monday when hundreds of the newspaper's supporters carrying banners and flowers gathered outside the paper's headquarters in the centre of Guangzhou for the first of three days of protests. The demonstration was largely peaceful amid a heavy police presence, with only a few scuffles reported, and a counter-protest by party loyalists.
Although the details of Hu's intervention remain unknown, Southern Weekly journalists confirmed that they had agreed to return to work on the new edition, published as usual on Thursday.
"We did not actually go on strike and the row did not affect our daily operations much," a Beijing-based staffer said. Like many of his colleagues, he had heard few details about the deal reached with Hu.
It was rumoured that Huang, editor-in-chief since 2009, might be sacked to appease staff. But many staff privately feared for the publication's future.
"I wouldn't call it a victory, basically because it didn't address any of our concerns," said another journalist. "I am still worried because authorities are unlikely to relax editorial control of our newspaper in this climate of deteriorating media freedom.
"Although authorities promised not to take revenge against us, I am not sure how many of us can continue working under such suffocating censorship."
Editorial staff confirmed on weibo late on Wednesday that the row was far from over, with disputes continuing between journalists, censors and management over several op-ed pieces. The weibo messages were deleted within an hour.
The row spread, with other outspoken newspapers, including the Beijing News, also targeted by propaganda authorities.
On Tuesday, editorial staff at Beijing News, led by publisher Dai Zigeng , bluntly refused an order purportedly given by the country's new propaganda chief, Liu Qibao , to reprint a Global Times commentary critical of Southern Weekly.
The commentary accused unspecified "external forces" of stirring up the controversy. Most controversially, it accused blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng , who escaped from house detention and was later allowed to move to New York last year, of being one of the main agitators.
It believed the central government was behind that accusation as many mainland newspapers, most of them liberal-leaning, were instructed by Liu's office to reprint the commentary.
The Beijing News' defiance proved short-lived, however, and it reprinted the article after authorities threatened to shut it down. But it did receive support from thousands of internet users.
Professor Zhan Jiang , a media specialist at Beijing Foreign Studies University, even called the confrontation a "defining moment" in the history of mainland journalism.
But analysts said dreams of a freer media may prove more elusive following the recent rows.
Professor Zhang Ming , a political analyst at Beijing's Renmin University, said authorities may have been surprised by the outrage against censorship, they stopped short of instigating bolder reforms.
"They will find it harder to strike a balance between fostering a public image of open-mindedness and maintaining tight control over an increasingly impatient public," he said.
Most analysts, including former journalist and popular blogger Li Chengpeng, said greater media freedom was unlikely despite growing calls.
"Mainland authorities must have been shocked by the public anger over the controversy, and will have to rethink censorship policy," Li said. "But whether they have the guts to take the initiative and overhaul state censorship is another question."
Professor Liu Junning , a Beijing-based analyst, said censorship was essential for an authoritarian regime like Beijing.
"No inquiry into the censorship row will be allowed because it will only reveal more dirty secrets about how the system manipulates the media," he said.
But Li Chengpeng said the significance of this rare display of media defiance should not be underestimated. "It may have the butterfly effect in the long run because many great social changes start from incremental, even trivial advances," he said.